European cities battle fiercely for top agencies leaving UK

BRUSSELS — Brexit is still well over a year away but two European cities on Monday will already be celebrating Britain's departure from the European Union.

Two major EU agencies now in London — the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority — must move to a new EU city because Britain is leaving the bloc. The two prizes are being hotly fought over by most of the EU's other 27 nations.

Despite all the rigid rules and conditions the bloc imposed to try to make it a fair, objective decision, the process has turned into a deeply political beauty contest — part Olympic host city bidding, part Eurovision Song Contest.

It will culminate in a secret vote Monday at EU headquarters in Brussels that some say could be tainted by vote trading.

The move involves tens of millions in annual funding, about 1,000 top jobs with many more indirectly linked, prestige around the world and plenty of bragging rights for whichever leader can bring home the agencies.

"I will throw my full weight behind this," French President Emmanuel Macron said when he visited Lille, which is seeking to host the EMA once Britain leaves in the EU in March 2019. "Now is the final rush."

At an EU summit Friday in Goteborg, Sweden, leaders were lobbying each other to get support for their bids.

The EMA is responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the EU. It has around 890 staff and hosts more than 500 scientific meetings every year, attracting about 36,000 experts.

The EBA, which has around 180 staff, monitors the regulation and supervision of Europe's banking sector.

With bids coming in from everywhere — from the newest member states to the EU's founding nations — who gets what agency will also give an indication of EU's future outlook.

The EU was created as club of six founding nations some 60 years ago, so it's logical that a great many key EU institutions are still in nations like Germany, France and Belgium. But as the bloc kept expanded east and south into the 21st century, these new member states see a prime opportunity now to claim one of these cherished EU headquarters, which cover everything from food safety to judicial cooperation to fisheries policy.

Romania and Bulgaria were the last to join the EU in 2007 and have no headquarters. Both now want the EMA — as does the tiny island nation of Malta.

"We deserve this. Because as we all know, Romania is an EU member with rights and obligations equal with all the rest of the member states," said Rodica Nassar of Romania's health care ministry.

But personnel at the EMA and EBA are highly skilled professionals, and many could be reluctant to move their careers and families from London to less prestigious locations.

"You have to imagine, for example, for the banking authority, which relies on basically 200 very high-level experts in banking regulatory matters to move to another place," said Karel Lannoo of the CEPS think tank. "First of all, to motivate these people to move elsewhere. And then if you don't manage to motivate these people, to find competent experts in another city."

As the vote nears, Milan and Bratislava are the favorites to win the EMA, with Frankfurt, and perhaps Dublin, leading the way for the EBA.

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